Your most burning questions on sleep
What is the most common myth when it comes to sleep?
That everyone needs 8 hours. We need however much sleep we need, and that can differ between people, but it doesn’t mean that we need that exact amount every single night. If you’re someone that tends to sleep 7.5 hours, you don’t always need that much. It’s like eating—there are days when you eat more and days when you eat less. Sleep is not a static thing; it’s quite the opposite. Little kids need a lot of sleep, while older people need a little less (although that’s still debated). Sleep also doesn’t happen in isolation; there’s a day that comes before it, and a day that comes after it so if we don’t sleep exactly the same every single night, that’s ok.
Is it ok for us to have a lie-in once in a while?
Every once in a while, yes, but not every weekend. If your amount of sleep regularly fluctuates though, where you sleep shortly in the week and then try to make up for it on the weekend, it confuses your body clock as your body isn’t able to recover from all the damage in the work week. Half an hour or so won’t make a difference though.
What kind of damage could not having regular sleep times do long term?
Insufficient sleep (short duration or poor quality) causes the risk of diabetes, obesity, cardiovascular diseases and cancer. In terms of mental health and wellbeing, sleep disorders and sleep problems are often a common symptom of depression, anxiety and schizophrenia. And it works both ways: poor sleep equals depression, while depression equals poor sleep. Your emotional wellbeing can suffer; you can become irritable, grumpy and critical of both oneself and others, and more ready for conflict by being somewhat more aggressive. Sleep and stress go hand in hand.
Stress impacts sleep when it causes our mind to race, known as preservative cognition (constant thinking). One of the reasons we sleep is to restore, so if we haven’t had enough sleep, we haven’t fully filled up our stores which is why it doesn’t take much to feel stressed from a tough situation the next day. When we’re stressed, we don’t have the resources to meet the demands.
What’s the deal with melatonin? Is it safe to take?
Melatonin is a signalling molecule a way that tells the rest of the body that it’s night-time. It has some sleep-promoting effects, but that’s not its primary role. It’s actually in your gut, skin cells, and many other areas, but in a sleep context, it’s secreted from the pineal gland in your brain.
Taking it is probably safe, although we still don’t know much about how exogenous melatonin (not produced within the body) affects people long-term. What does concern me is people becoming reliant on melatonin, and that your natural levels of melatonin can be completely different from someone else’s. You can be a high or low producer, and both of us would sleep fine. You have to be somewhat deficient in melatonin production for it to kick in properly.
Melatonin levels naturally deplete with age. We don’t fully understand how it works but there are changes to the pineal gland in our brain as we get older due to calcification, which causes the brain to produce less melatonin leading to more sleep issues.
What causes us to wake up in the middle of the night?
Everyone wakes up a number of times during the night—it’s absolutely normal. The issue is when we are unable to fall back asleep, which is what would be considered insomnia.
If it is insomnia, it’s usually caused by a very busy mind, physical sensations or emotions. It could be that you wake up and think about the day you had, or worry about the future. Worrying will lead to emotions which are often expressed physically in the body. It’s the busy mind that you can get hooked by, or unpleasant emotions.
Should we be treating sleep like we would joints or bones, and take preventative or cautionary measures?
Yes, absolutely! Sleep is an important if not the most important component in our overall health. I would even say that it’s the foundation of our health and wellbeing, so implementing a healthy sleep etiquette is absolutely paramount.
Everyone always says we need 8 hours of sleep –– is that a correct number? How was that number determined?
It’s an oversimplification. Most adults need between 7 and 9 hours but to say we all need 8 hours is wrong. How much sleep you need is down to you as an individual. When regularly you wake up feeling refreshed and can get by throughout the day without relying on stimulants such as coffee – then you have slept for the right amount and had quality sleep.
Can some people actually function on 5 hours of sleep regularly?
Anything is possible, but it’s really only a very small percentage of maybe 1-2% of people who can actually function on less than 6 hours. But we’re great storytellers, and we can tell ourselves a story that we are absolutely fine.
Is there a position that’s truly best for our bodies to sleep in?
No, there isn’t! Many people would say don’t sleep on your front or tummy because it’s bad for your back, but everyone does what feels best for them. It’s the same with waking up. We change positions and wake up without being aware of it. Anything that is comfortable for you and doesn’t cause pain.
If you haven’t found an answer to your most burning question on sleep, send me an email.
This blog is based on a previous article (The Nue Co. – In bed with Dr Kat. Lederle) published here.